Belatedly caught War Horse yesterday afternoon. (It seemed like it would suit the matinee mood, and it did.) I had been forewarned by enough critics I respect that this was not Spielberg’s finest hour, and that after the clever horse’s-eye-view of the book, and the clever puppetry of the stage play, this was a pretty conventional telling of the tale, so I went in with low expectations. My expectations were met.
I have nothing against Steven Spielberg. It would be churlish to deny him the crown of the-modern-day’s-Howard-Hawks (a big compliment from where I’m sitting), but he doesn’t always knock it out of the park. How could he? But having made two strong, serious films about World War II, I’d hoped for something a bit more meaningful and original from him about World War I. Instead, outside of a couple of good, David Lean-exhuming set pieces, War Horse felt like a string of sometimes excruciating clichés and mechnical story beats. It reminded me more of Lassie Come Home, or, for a more contemporary but no less helpful comparison, Babe, than it did Saving Private Ryan. As has been pointed out already, the establishing act, set in rural Devon, was about as authentic-seeming as The Darling Buds Of May. Since Spielberg went to all the trouble of shooting it in Devon (and a bit of Wiltshire), this is a pretty unfortunate outcome.
A mostly English cast worked wonders with the Devon accent, but set, as they were, within a totally unreal, backlot vision of country life, even the august likes of David Thewlis and Emily Watson sounded hokey. It’s not giving anything away to say that the action returns to Devon at the end, but when it does, Spielberg opts to paint the sky a golden/queasy yellow, as if perhaps Michael Bay had sat in for him that day, and everything looks post-apocalyptic, rather than Gone With The Wind glorious. This heavy-handed approach is fairly typical of the whole film. Nothing is allowed to go past without being sugar-coated or drained of blood.
Based of course on a children’s book, this is a “family film” about one boy and his horse who must both go off to war without losing their 12A certificate, and as such, even the horrors of the barbed wire and the trenches and the mustard gas feel sanitised for afternoon consumption. (At one stage, the sail of a windmill in the foreground helpfully goes past to discreetly mask an act of violence in the background. Technical masterstroke, or cheap sleight of hand?) It’s hard to convey the obscenity of a conflict that killed nine million people without showing bodyparts in massive piles, but co-writer Richard Curtis managed to do it on a BBC Comedy budget 20 years ago, which is ironic.
Novelist Michael Morpurgo’s was such an interesting dramatic approach to the conflict, too; because the Great War marked the cusp of fully mechanised combat, the one million conscripted horses sent over to France from England represented the end of an era. It’s truly bizarre to see the first cavalry charge, on horseback, with swords outstretched, the beasts eventually cut down by German machine guns. This is one of the film’s successful set-pieces. Not only is it technically brilliant, it has something profound to say, and its outcome is unexpected. Spielberg pulls back from the massacre and, in long shot, shows us a field full of dead horses. This is not to suggest that Spielberg does not care about the human dead, as one rather extreme review put it, rather that he is adapting a book and play that put a new focus on the animals, none of whom volunteered.
Hey, I’m the soppy animal lover who’s supposed to lap all this stuff up. And yes, I had a tear in my eye at one point, which I won’t spoil, but I will say it had nothing to do with the suffering of a human man. To be honest, with the subject matter, and with the obligatory button-pushing John Williams score to help prompt me WHEN TO BE SAD, I was disappointed not to be in middle-aged floods the whole way through. But I found War Horse oddly unmoving for the most part, even with all those gorgeous animal actors onscreen. (Apparently Joey was played by 14 separate horses; I was disappointed they were not named in the credits, which I sat through to the bitter end by the way.)
Drama can drift into melodrama very quickly if you don’t watch yourself, and some of the broader strokes in War Horse do just that – the “comedy” goose chasing off the nasty landlord and his men; the entire village turning out to watch Joey pull a plough through an intransigent field. And yet, the film’s most audacious sequence – its equivalent of the famous No-Man’s Land kickabout of legend, whose details I won’t spoil – works.
It’s pretty clear that War Horse is not a bad film, but I fear it was a bad idea to turn an unusual book and an unusual play (I understand Curtis and co-writer the also talented populist Lee Hall took elements of both) into a usual film. Spielberg likes to entertain as many people as possible. This is an admirable ambition, and has led to some of the best blockbusters of my lifetime. But it’s significant, I think, that he went all the way up to a 15 certificate for his two WWII films.
I don’t think you can “blame” the deficiencies of War Horse on the script, and you certainly can’t blame it on the acting. Some of our finest thesps crop up in tiny roles and do great things with them: Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, Geoff Bell, Toby Kebbel, Johnny Harris. But with all that talent on tap, and with two war horses like Curtis and Hall at the typewriter, something went awry. It must be somebody’s fault. And it wasn’t the animal trainers.
At the end of the day, it’s a battle between sentimentality and horror, and ends up in a no-man’s land of its own making.
I haven’t mentioned Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, and his chance to play the Roman emperor onscreen, having already played him onstage, but if you like your Shakespeare in a modern setting – in this case, an unnamed war-torn Balkan country, albeit filmed in Belgrade so you get the general idea – it’s convincingly done. And Fiennes makes a pretty powerful Coriolanus, with his shaved head, dog tags and khaki vest. Less impressive is Gerard Butler as his nemesis, who mangles some of his lines, but his is not the worst crime; for me, an overcooked Vanessa Redgrave had the effect of smothering all around her whenever she was onscreen. Also, there is too much reliance of faked TV news footage to explain the action and to underline the modern re-staging, and I found Jon Snow delivering Iambic pentameter to be unintentionally comic (unless it was intentionally comic, in which case I withdraw my criticism). But I really liked Brian Cox and James Nesbitt, and I managed to follow the story, which is not always easy with what are, let us not be coy, very old plays. The story is a bit repetitive, but that’s the bloke who wrote the play’s fault, surely?
I always needed a bit of visual help when studying Shakespeare at school, and will always be grateful to the BBC Macbeth with Ian McKellen, and the BBC Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins. I’m sure this will help students of Coriolanus. And hey, it’s another of the 50 films Jessica Chastain made last year. She’s the female Ryan Gosling.
Apologies for the late running of these film reviews. I am hard at work writing the second series of Mr Blue Sky and that must take priority, as you can imagine. (Deadline for all six episodes: end of February.)